The Bulldozer and the Big Tent

Is Todd Gitlin a "left conservative"? Scott McLemee interviews him for a podcast and considers some afterthoughts.

October 3, 2007

“Pessimism of the intellect,” runs a familiar saying from the Italian revolutionary theorist Antonio Gramsci, “optimism of the will.” In other words, plan as if the worst-case scenario were inevitable, but act with all the vigor and confidence necessary to win in the (very) long term. It is an inspiring quotation -- or seemed to be, the first several thousand times I heard it.

Gramsci himself suffered years of imprisonment under Mussolini; his laconic advice had a certain moral authority. When it caught on among American leftists during the Reagan years, things were not nearly that bad. But we kept reciting it, and eventually the repetition wore Gramsci's incisive formulation down into a trite formula. It came to embody not courage so much as a mood of profound ineffectiveness.

While interviewing Todd Gitlin recently for an Inside Higher Ed podcast, I was tempted to ask if he had deliberately avoided using Gramsci’s line in his new book, The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals, just published by John Wiley and Sons.

Gitlin was once president of Students for a Democratic Society, the largest of the New Left organizations in the 1960s. Now he’s a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. In recent years, he has greatly annoyed some people by suggesting that the American left has not only painted itself into a corner, but even revels in its own marginality and distance from power.

“Doesn’t defeat taste sweet in a good cause?” he asks in the introduction to The Intellectuals and the Flag, a collection of essays that Columbia University Press published in 2006. “The honest truth is that negativity has its rewards and they are far from negligible.... It grants nobility. It stokes the psychic fires. Defeated outrage cannot really be defeated. It burns with a sublime and cleansing flame. It confirms one’s righteousness. It collapses the indeterminate future into a burning present.”

Against this, Gitlin has counseled a less strident and more pragmatic-minded approach to progressive politics -- one that places economic concerns ahead of questions of culture and identity. Richard Rorty made the same call in his book Achieving Our Country (Harvard, 1998), which advised radicals to “put a moratorium on theory” and “try to mobilize what remains of our pride in being Americans” by learning to ask itself “how the country of Lincoln and Whitman might be achieved.”

Naturally this did not go over very well in some quarters. It was dubbed “left conservatism,” and denounced in solemn convocations. The debate unfolded while Bill Clinton was still in office (if just barely, for a while there) and soon exhausted itself without, it seems, any participant changing anyone else’s mind.

Perhaps Gitlin, Rorty et al. were right that a combination of Nietzsche and Nader was a recipe for political irrelevance. But they often seemed to be treating the “cultural left” as scapegoats for failures that mainstream American liberalism had achieved by its own devices. (Identity politics did not put Dukakis in a tank. No queer theorist bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan.)

At the same time, the academic radicals who complained about “left conservatism” were clearly quite content talking only to themselves. When Judith Butler announced that "the critique of cultural iconicity is the means by which cultural iconicity is achieved," it was not the sort of slogan anyone would want to put on a banner. Maybe the old fogeys who preferred “an injury to one is an injury to all” did have a point.

Today we are several disastrous years downstream from that heated exchange. A lot has changed, but not everything. The radical instinct to form a circular firing squad remains unchanged; it is in the genome, probably. Still, the reflex has been interrupted from time to time by distractions from the White House and Iraq. The president’s impending appointment with the dustbin of history -- taking Rove’s “permanent Republican majority” with him, it seems -- permits and even requires some effort to imagine a change of course in the near future.

None of the leading Democratic candidates really counts as a person of the left (no matter what crazy uncle Larry says on his “Down with Marxist Hillary and Obama Commie” blog). One of Gitlin’s points in his new book is that even the forces calling for a relatively modest sort of liberal reformism are only one part of the “big tent” of Democratic activism.

And even were the Democrats in control of the executive and legislative branches, the fact is that the Republican Party will still be able to rely on its organizational “bulldozer” -- capable of staying relentlessly on message, even (and especially) when reality gets in the way. It is “a focused coalition with two, and only two, major components,” writes Gitlin, “the low-tax, love-business, hate-government enthusiasts and the God-save-us moral crusaders.”

In contrast, the Democrats subsume “roughly eight” constituencies, by Gitlin’s reckoning: “labor, African Americans, Hispanics, feminists, gays, environmentalists, members of the helping professions (teachers, social workers, nurses), and the militantly liberal, especially antiwar denizens of avant-garde cultural zones such as university towns, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and so on.”

This is not the place to rehearse Gitlin’s whole analysis. He gave an overview of the book at TPM Cafe recently, and our podcast discussion covers some of the major points.

But it seems worth noting that Gitlin's earlier complaints about “identity” and the jargonizing folkways of the academic left, while not entirely absent from The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, are much less prominent here than in some of his other writings. He appears to recognize that said cohorts do indeed have a place under the big tent -- over in the section for “the militantly liberal” and “antiwar denizens of avant-garde cultural zones.”

The more I think about this, the less sure I am what to make of it. And it’s not just being called a denizen. (You get used to that.)

Treating labor as one constituency and defining it as distinct from blacks, Latinos, feminists, and gays might make sense insofar as each has its own lobbying apparatus inside the Beltway. But in real life (and in the polling booth, for that matter) the terms of identity are by no means clearcut. Gitlin refers to Jesse Jackson’s role as “the voice of post-sixties interest-group liberalism.” Which is maybe fair enough, as far as it goes -- but it doesn’t account for Jackson’s surprisingly strong primary showings among white labor unionists in 1988.

Gitlin writes that now, as the Bush period comes to an end, we may be able at last to “get on with an adult discussion of how Americans may afford health care and decent housing, win decent employment and fair wages, dampen inequalities, stifle murderous enemies, and sustain a livable earth for generations present and future.”

Well said. Speed the day. And when it comes, a large helping of realpolitik will be essential. (Inspirational passages from Antonio Gramsci, maybe not so much.) To repair the damage done to this country over the past six years might take decades -- and that’s putting things with all the optimism anyone can reasonably muster.

But any progressive force that is up to the task will need to do more than tolerate its own multiplicity. It will have to be able to build on its actual strengths -- not all of which are credited by the “left conservative” tendency to treat economic egalitarianism as the primary criterion for social progress.

Ten years ago, state recognition of civil unions (let alone marriage) between same-sex couples was not really part of the public debate. Today, however, it is. The Republican party has to spend a considerable part of its energy defending the principle that the right to get drunk in Vegas and have a wedding must be restricted to a specific configuration of participants. This makes them look kind of silly to a lot of people, including some Republicans.

When a significant portion of the public accepts the idea that gays and lesbians have at very least a right to civil unions, this raises the possibility that the "bulldozer" might just fire its engine into overdrive and go flying off a cliff.

Now, to be frank, I am enough of a “left conservative” to wish that we were discussing nationalizing the oil companies instead. But realpolitik means working with what you’ve got.

Any tendency to regard “mere” cultural politics as a distraction from assembling the forces to launch another is not a matter of being tough-minded and practical. It means ignoring the battles you are already winning -- and taking for granted the forces that have led the fight. There are various things to call such a strategy, but “pragmatic” would not be one of them.


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